By Stuart R. Levine
Published in Forbes
Building Your Experience through Board Service
There is an African proverb which reads, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The wisdom contained in those words underscores the importance of learning how to build relationships, promote teamwork, and gain buy-in.
There are times in a technology-driven world when the benefits of human interaction and collaboration are overlooked. Yet everyone in business – and especially those at the beginning of their professional career — should consider not-for-profit board service to help cultivate these people skills.
In my case, when I was an emerging executive, I joined the board of a community hospital. It gave me an opportunity to understand the importance of healthcare and community health. The experience also helped to develop my sense of purpose and cultivate strong interpersonal skills.
BUILD YOUR NETWORK
During my board service, I was invited to participate in national conferences where I had access to thought leaders in the healthcare industry. Our chairman would host private dinners, which gave me a seat at the table in discussions about community health issues. He would moderate discussions by asking prepared questions to engage everyone, which allowed us to learn from one other and share our experiences. It also strengthened the board’s culture by promoting respect and nurturing strong relationships. Furthermore, I got to observe great leadership in action by watching our chairman thoughtfully facilitate productive conversations.
ENHANCE YOUR CREDIBILITY
An important lesson I learned is that you need to be just as prepared for board meetings as you are for your day job. These meetings present a golden opportunity for you to distinguish yourself, so show up regularly, on time, prepared, and with energy to support the mission of the organization. Being prepared means reading all the materials thoroughly. Prepare any strategic questions you want to ask to clarify the information provided. Come prepared to listen actively and provide meaningful comments that serve the discussion rather than sharing information just to appear intelligent. Remember, there is limited oxygen in the room, so always cut to the chase with your comments — which you can do if you’re prepared. For example, when I was Lead Director for a public corporation, there was a director who invariably asked tactical questions which moved the discussion from a strategic deployment of capital to minutia about regional offices, with the subtext being that he wanted to see how his friends were doing as managers of branches. His lack of strategic perspective slowed down the board and focused everyone’s attention on the wrong issues.
These not-for-profit board experiences can then become talking points in business, in job interviews, and at dinner tables with colleagues. You become a more interesting, well-rounded and respected person, not only for volunteering your time to a worthy cause, but also by expressing who you are in a meaningful way, thereby further developing your leadership skills.
GAIN LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE
Throughout my board service at the hospital, my confidence grew and I stepped up to the plate, not only to serve on committees but also to chair several of them. These experiences were invaluable and reached far beyond the healthcare industry to business in general, including such things as contract negotiations with labor groups and CEOs, as well as learning to appreciate the dignity of working people and understanding the impact on their ability to achieve strategic objectives. It additionally brought me closer to understanding who our customers were, how to best serve them and who was delivering these services. This lesson is applicable across the board, regardless of the industry you are working in. .
THE LONG TERM BENEFITS
Volunteering for not-for-profit boards also provides you with invaluable experience for serving on publicly-traded boards. You will learn the importance of committees, governance, and how to perform in those high-level discussions. By putting yourself in a position to learn, you are stepping out of your comfort zone and differentiating yourself from your peers. People will respect your actions and your commitment to a greater cause and it will ultimately increase your self-confidence, your visibility, and your ability to grow both professionally and personally.
WHERE TO START
Opportunities to serve on not-for-profit boards can sometimes come from unexpected places. For example, when I moved to a new community as a young married professional, my personal physician identified me as a prospective board candidate. In truth, I would not have thought about it had it not been for him. The point is, there are people all around you who can recommend you to board seats. You shouldn’t feel shy about asking what charities or philanthropic activities friends and colleagues are involved and where they could recommend you as a board member. You would then have a mentor within that organization, in addition to gaining invaluable experience.
When you serve on a board, you will interface with CEOs and their leadership teams and get involved with strategic discussions on technology, capital deployment and succession planning – all issues that face every corporate entity. Many boards meet on a monthly basis, so only accept those assignments where you can commit the required time and energy.
Performing at a high level will give you the insights and experience necessary to help your community, develop relationships and have a greater understanding of the world. For me, one of the most important benefits of board service was developing life-long friendships with individuals who not only helped my career but also enriched my life.
So heed the African proverb quoted above and know that the relationships you develop with those who share common values and interests can provide you with intellectual stimulation as well as friendships that will last a lifetime.